The Secret Black History of the Revolution
As we know all too well, the Revolutionary War was not fought so that all men could be free, but its role in creating the seeds of abolition should not be forgotten.
A central myth of American history teaching is that the American Revolution was fought for the “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” of each person. By each, Jefferson sadly meant mainly white farmers. This patriotic myth—what I call a Founding Amnesia—drove Frederick Douglass, in 1852, to declare that the Fourth of July was not for slaves.
But perhaps in contrast to its long history of racist exclusion, the Daughters of the American Revolution should first honor black Patriots. As Georg Daniel Flohr, a German private who fought at the decisive battle Yorktown with the French Royal Deux-Ponts for the Patriots, noted while walking around the field of battle the next day: “all over the place and wherever you looked, corpses… lying about that had not been buried; the larger part of these were Mohren [Moors, blacks].”
And as I emphasize in Black Patriots and Loyalists (2012), the acme of freedom in the American Revolution was the gradual emancipation of slaves in Vermont (not yet a state) in 1777, in Pennsylvania in 1780, in Massachusetts in 1782, in Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784, in New York in 1799, and in New Jersey in 1804. If we ask the central question in American history: how did there come to be a free North to oppose bondage in the Civil War, the answer is, surprisingly: gradual emancipation during and just after the American Revolution. Thus, black Patriots and their white abolitionist allies played a central, undiscussed role both in battle and in the deepening of American freedom.
Finally, why did the man believed to be the first martyr of the American Revolution, Crispus Attucks, an escaped slave of black and Native American parentage who became a sailor, fiercely take on the Redcoats in the Boston Massacre? Attucks is part of a complex history that reveals how much the Revolutionary War and the Fourth of July are a day that belongs to African Americans.
1. The violent fight against Imperial press-gangs
The first part of this story is the emergence of a violent revolutionary movement of self-defense among sailors in the 18th century. The Imperial Navy needed bodies for its expanding empire. But the crown had never relied on volunteers. Instead, it sent armed gangs to kidnap people at sea or in the street. But people did not go willingly. All around the Atlantic—in Antigua, Jamaica, Halifax, and Boston, for example—there were 604 uprisings against these royal gangs in the 18th century.
Sailors often defended themselves with pikes or muskets. Soldiers and sailors were killed in such raids.
The greatest of these uprisings was a three day battle in Boston against Admiral Knowles’s gangs in 1746. In the Independent Advertiser in 1747, Sam Adams wrote that multiracial, multinational movement against press-gangs was a driving force in making a free regime: “All Men are by nature on a Level: born with an equal Share of Freedom, and endow’d with Capacities nearly alike.”
Whole communities rebelled against the gangs. Women, left behind, were called “Impressment widows.” Mary Jones, an Irish teenager, and her children starved after her husband was taken during the Falklands war scare of 1770. Mary was arrested for shoplifting a small piece of muslin. Suckling one of her children even as the noose was put around her neck, she was hung. British “law” meant hanging and it was used depravedly against the poor. And in the colonies, it was worse.
Merchants and members of the Boston House of Representatives feared revolutionary crowds. They denounced “a tumultuous riotous assembling of armed Seamen, Servants, Negroes, and others... tending to the Destruction of all Government and Order.” The phrase, “Armed Seaman, Servants, Negroes, and others” became almost a formula in such denunciations. They would be echoed by many later historians.
But a vast, Atlantic-wide succession of rebellions against Impressment was the key feature of the run up to the Revolution. These rebellions mobilized sailors against the crown, motivated them to participate vigorously in other demonstrations about taxes, and taught them, their relatives and communities, in Lockean terms, the need for violent self-defense. In America, press-gangs made revolutionaries.
Now black escapees, like Crispus Attucks, often found freedom at sea. Sailors, notably blacks, would lead revolutionary crowds against press-gangs and other abuses.
In 1760 in Jamaica, Tacky’s Rebellion, the largest uprising against bondage until that time, lasted for 4 months. Between 1760 and 1775, the outbreak of the American Revolution, some 20 slave uprisings took place in Bermuda, Nevis, Surinam, British Honduras, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Vincent, Tobago, St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. Kitts.
Seized without compensation, forced to abandon their families, sailors on British ships often identified with slaves. They took the word to London and Boston. In 1760, J. Philmore talked with mariners on London docks, and wrote the memorable Two Dialogues concerning the Man-Trade. In the broad abolitionist movement in England and America, Philmore’s 1760 pamphlet marks the most thorough transition politically from fighting for the basic “rights of an Englishman” to natural, universal or what we name today human rights. Unlike non-abolitionist authors, Philmore replaces the commonly labeled “slave trade”—a pro-bondage appellation which falsely legitimizes owners, merchants, and hunters—with the shocking but true name: the Man-trade. James Otis wrote a similar pamphlet in Boston. These ideas would be discussed in every poor people’s tavern in the 11 years leading up to the Revolution and shape rank-and-file abolitionism.
Integrated riots against press-gangs marked the pre-Revolutionary period as well as protest against taxes on tea or stamped paper. In Newport in June 1765, 500 “seamen, boys, and Negroes” rioted after five weeks of impressment. In Norfolk in 1767, Captain Jeremiah Morgan retreated, sword in hand, before a mob of armed whites and Negroes. “Good God,” he wrote to the governor, “was your Honour and I to prosecute all the Rioters that attacked us belonging to Norfolk there would not be twenty left unhang'd belonging to the Toun.” According to Thomas Hutchinson, the Liberty Riot in Boston in I768 was as much against impressment as against the seizure of John Hancock's sloop. To understand this militancy, we might say that a second and deeper emancipatory revolution against bondage surged from the Caribbean via sailors into the U.S. and London, and shaped the revolution for independence from Britain.
In 1776, the crown authorized large numbers of press warrants in London for bodies to fight the American Revolution. But sailors, armed, marched together “having resolved to oppose any violence that might be done to them, and rather die than assist the Royalists in shedding the Blood of their American Brethren.” This was a startling example of democratic solidarity or internationalism from below, anti-patriotic, despising the Royalists’ haughty colonialism.
2. Lord Dunmore’s Proclamations and massive black Toryism
Freedom for blacks did not come about initially on the side of those who opposed the British. From 1772 on, Royal Governor Dunmore of Virginia had threatened rebellious Patriots. “It is my fixed purpose,” he said, “to arm my own Negroes and accept all others whom I shall declare free… and I shall not hesitate at reducing [Patriots’] houses to ashes and spreading destruction wherever I can reach.” By the time he issued his Proclamation on Nov. 7, 1775, thousands of blacks had flocked to the British side to join his Royal Ethiopian Regiment. Because of Dunmore and the High Court’s 1772 Somersett decision that bondage was outlawed on English soil, the Southern states seceded from Britain to preserve slavery. In his 1775 “Taxation not Tyranny,” Samuel Johnson, the great English essayist, rightly quipped: “How come we hear the greatest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?”
But Dunmore’s black troops suffered smallpox; he was eventually forced to retreat to Manhattan. One of his soldiers, Titus, however, became Captain Tye, the leader of successful multiracial guerrillas operating in New Jersey. In addition, every English commander recruited blacks. And thousands of the unorganized followed every command, gradually being recruited to become soldiers or pursue jobs around the camps.
In 1779, the commander of British forces in the colonies, Sir Henry Clinton, issued a Proclamation welcoming blacks in any occupation. A huge number of escapees, perhaps 40,000, ultimately joined the Loyalists; many became regular troops, including at Yorktown. Britain did not have so many Redcoats in America so they had to rely on black troops. In 1781, Murphy Steele, a Black Pioneer, reported a vision to an aide of Sir Henry Clinton. A voice had come to him—God’s voice, he said—telling him to tell Clinton to tell General Washington that he must surrender or Clinton would recruit every black man in America to fight. Steele’s was wise strategic advice. But Clinton did not listen.
Before the Civil War, American abolitionist authors did not discuss the central role of the Empire as the freer of the most oppressed for fear of being thought unpatriotic. Afterward, this matter has long been eschewed as, in Gary Nash’s apt phrase, “the revolution’s dirty secret.”
3. Black Patriots as the best American soldiers
Free blacks and slaves fought in every American battle. Initially, George Washington sought to discourage black recruitment. But he soon realized that Lord Dunmore’s strength might grow against him, “like a snowball in rolling,” and become an avalanche. It was thus military competition which produced a major impetus to recruit black Patriots.
In 1778, Governor James Mitchell Varnum of Rhode Island wrote to Washington that he could not find enough recruits among whites and wanted to form a black regiment. Washington agreed. Promising to purchase the freedom of black volunteers, the governor formed the First Rhode Island Regiment of some 250 blacks and Narragansett Indians. Most militiamen fought for only nine months. In contrast, these Rhode Island soldiers, who did not desert or were not killed, fought for five years. They became, as Baron von Closen, Washington’s advisor, observed in the march to Yorktown in 1781, “the most neatly dressed, the best under arms and the most precise in maneuvers” among Patriot soldiers. Another black unit was recruited in Connecticut and another in Massachusetts. According to von Closen, these composed one-quarter of the American forces at Yorktown.
In 1855, the black abolitionist Henry Nell reported in his Colored Patriots of the American Revolution that 5,000 African-American soldiers fought for the Patriots. This number has been echoed by American historians ever since. But multiracial protest has finally forced the Daughters of the American Revolution, hesitantly, to count. In their 2008 Forgotten Patriots, Brianna L. Diaz and Hollis L. Gentry list by name 6,600 black and indigenous soldiers. Their dedication is to known and unknown nonwhite Patriots. With more research, this number will increase.
4. That genuine freedom is freedom for all
The revolutionary struggle in the United States was led by sailors and artisans, black and white, slave and free. It produced gradual emancipation in the North. It also inspired a deeper sense of liberty from below. For instance, General Washington had promised farmer recruits that their lands would be there when they returned. But soldiers from the Northeast came back to find their farms threatened with seizure for debt by banks. Led by Captain Daniel Shays, they rebelled in 1786-87.
These soldier-farmers of Western Massachusetts also protested the Constitution because it sanctioned bondage. Here are the words of three of these men in The Hampshire Gazette. As Consider Arms (a pseudonym), Malachi Maynard and Samuel Field put it,
“Where is the man who under the influence of sober, dispassionate reasoning, and not void of natural affection, can lay his hand upon his heart and say, I am willing my sons and my daughters should be torn from me and doomed to perpetual slavery? We presume that man is not to be found amongst us: And yet we think the consequence is fairly drawn that this is what every man should be able to say who voted for this constitution.”
Their words prefigure John Rawls’s later modeling of an original position in which a moral judgment is one that empathically puts ourselves in the position of “the least advantaged.” The ardor of revolutionary soldiers like John Laurens extended this vision even into South Carolina. The movement that created gradual emancipation in the North would eventually explode bondage and, a century later, segregation in the South. As Black Lives Matter and Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s powerful dissent this June in Utah v. Strieff show, the fight for a decent, multiracial America continues to this moment. The long struggle before, during and after the Revolution on the Patriot side was a great and heroic beginning, and deserves, at last, to be widely known.
Alan Gilbert is John Evans Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, and author of Black Patriots and Loyalists; Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence, University of Chicago Press, 2012 and “Slave-gangs, Press-gangs and Emancipation in the American Revolution.”
H/t Jesse Lemisch, Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh.